After weeks of mulling over the biggest vacancy in his diplomatic corps—the ambassadorship to Britain—Harry Truman made up his mind. The man he picked for the job: conservative, 64-year-old O. (for Oliver) Max Gardner, a safe, uncolorful candidate whom the Senate was likely to confirm with little or no fuss.

From a law practice in Shelby, N.C., Gardner swam naturally into Democratic politics. In 1929 he became North Carolina's governor. To the horror of local Southern politicos, he once had himself photographed at a rally with a Negro girl who had won an essay contest.

In 1933 he went to Washington,...

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